Mr. Speaker, what a long road we have travelled to get here. The process leading us to today's motion has been a long and very frustrating struggle. It was a struggle where the opposition was forced to mitigate the excesses of a careless and arrogant government, a government devoid of any appreciation for what Parliament actually does, a government that insulted the House and dismissed the role of members who sit in opposition to it.
The process has been a sham from the beginning, despite the assertions that we have been hearing about a conversation, a dialogue, and working better together. Over the weeks and months of question period, the House has heard the full word salad from the government trying to defend and excuse its approach to Parliament, a bunch of jargon and buzzwords tossed together with very little substance and very little weight. Given the way the Prime Minister has handled this whole issue and refused for months to acknowledge the need for all-party support, Conservatives will be voting against the motion.
Let me take a few moments to review just how we managed to get here. On March 10, a Friday afternoon, just before we started our March constituency week, the government House leader posted on her website a so-called discussion paper. The House will recall that this Liberal discussion paper proposed, among other things, to reduce the opportunity for members to hold the government to account by eliminating Friday sittings, automatically time-allocating all bills, preventing the opposition from triggering debates on committee reports, and bringing sharp closure changes to committee. It was a shocking set of ideas to think about. Since it was less than a year since we had witnessed the Motion No. 6 fiasco, it was sadly par for the course with the government. The primary driving force for the Prime Minister has been to alter the balance between the opposition and the government by taking away the protections that the rules offer.
The Globe and Mail in an editorial at the time called out the Prime Minister on his ideas and I quote:
[The] government considers the opposition’s limited arsenal to be “tactics which seek only to undermine and devalue the important work of Parliament,” and which “sow dysfunction” and are not “rational” or “defensible,” according to a discussion paper....
Those contentions are cynical bunk. The...government is hawking a utopian vision of Parliament, in which members from different parties politely discuss the government’s proposed legislation on a schedule set by mutual agreement, and there are cheers all around when the House enacts laws that are a perfect reflection of the selfless compromises agreed to in a collegial fashion on committees and in the House....
There are just sunny ways passing beneath crisp rainbows.
They are sunny ways indeed. Had this discussion paper simply been just that when it was published, it would have been read, critiqued, and actually discussed with the flaws being pointed out and the interesting ideas build upon. However, that is not at all what happened.
Later that afternoon, the government House leader's colleague gave notice of motion at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to have the discussion paper studied, with everything wrapped up and recommendations made by June 2. Had the motion at committee simply been a proposal to add the discussion paper to its study of the Standing Orders, it would have been a natural idea and hard to object to. However, that is not what happened. The writing was on the wall. All of the ideas in the discussion paper, which coincidentally all were to the benefit of the Prime Minister, would be rammed through.
Let us fast forward to the procedural and House affairs committee on March 21. The Liberals wanted to pass their motion right away. The hon. member for Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston offered an amendment to observe the longstanding tradition around here of using all-party consensus to change our rules. The Liberals, to their credit, quickly signalled their disagreement with that perfectly reasonable amendment.
We were faced with a completely transparent plan from the Liberals to ram these awful ideas through the House. We simply would not allow this to happen. As a result, we had to stop this reckless Liberal power grab from getting rammed through, so we used one of the very few tools available to opposition parties, the one that the Liberals actually had wanted to remove, and that is the ability to filibuster. Over some six weeks with more than 80 hours of committee meetings, opposition MPs led the fight against the Liberal discussion paper.
I have to give credit to the three Conservative MPs who are members of that committee, the hon. members for Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, Banff—Airdrie, and Haliburton—Kawartha Lakes—Brock. However, it was not just them; this really was a team effort, and 29 Conservative members of Parliament participated at that committee.
In parallel to the committee proceedings, the NDP House leader and I offered a constructive alternative to the government. We suggested that the House set up a special committee with one member from each party, chaired by our impartial Deputy Speaker, to work on a consensus basis in reviewing our procedures and proposing improvements.
What we proposed was hardly revolutionary. Pierre Trudeau's government set up the Lefebvre committee, which recommended several changes to the Standing Orders, such as bringing in the first time limits to bell ringing, which were adopted unanimously.
Brian Mulroney's government set up the McGrath committee. That group tabled three reports, all adopted unanimously, on a whole range of topics, such as giving our standing committees permanent mandates to study topics on their own initiative.
Under Jean Chrétien, a special committee on the modernization and improvement of the procedures of the House of Commons was created. That committee codified the pattern of goodwill to its rules with an express requirement for reports to be adopted unanimously. Far from that being a veto—and remember that this was back in the days of five recognized parties—the committee managed to adopt six reports.
Most recently, Stephen Harper's government followed the tradition of the unanimity approach, not bringing in permanent procedural amendments with out all-party support.
Those governments proved that reforming Parliament can be done with a co-operative approach. The results were substantive, and they significantly strengthened the role members play in this place.
Indeed, I know the procedure and House affairs committee would have been up to that task. From following their debates, and from joining them for a night, I know that the members from all parties handled the task in front of them with civility and good cheer. They would have handled such a review in a professional and capable fashion.
Sadly, it was quite clear that the Liberals on the committee were under firm instructions from the Prime Minister's Office not to let their members' own better judgment carry the day. Indeed, far from being co-operative and far from her repeated claim to have an open door, the government House leader left the other House leaders hanging. For weeks on end, our letter to her went unanswered.
In addition to a committee filibuster and good faith proposals from the opposition parties, here in the chamber the opposition parties used many of the tools available to us to register our unhappiness and our frustration. The Liberal government desperately tried to get back on track, even shutting down a privilege debate and preventing it from coming to a vote. The hon. member for Perth—Wellington called out the government on this, and the Chair ruled that what the Liberal government had done was entirely without precedent. The Speaker wisely and bravely ruled, allowing the privilege debate to start anew.
Finally, admitting that the Prime Minister was staring at the risk of a total paralysis of his parliamentary agenda, the government House leader finally answered the letter that the hon. member for Victoria and I had sent her. In that letter she indicated that the Liberals were backing away from their discussion paper, but would be pressing ahead regardless of the opposition parties' thoughts with items referenced in the Liberal election platform.
The opposition cannot claim complete credit for the Liberal backdown. I suspect the Liberal House leader may have been under considerable pressure from her own caucus colleagues. Though caucus meetings are confidential, I believe that we witnessed the tip of the iceberg when the hon. member for Malpeque, a veteran of this House, offered this in debate on April 11:
...this place is called the House of Commons for a reason. It is not the House of cabinet or the House of PMO. Protecting the rights of members in this place, whether it is the opposition members in terms of the stance they are taking, is also protecting the rights of the other members here who are not members of cabinet or the government. We talk about government as if this whole side is the government. The government is the executive branch. We do need to protect these rights.
Here we stand today debating government Motion No. 18.
First let me talk about something that we all expected to be in this motion. The headline proposal in every Liberal statement this spring about the Standing Orders was that there was going to be a dedicated Prime Minister's question period. We heard a lot about that.
The Prime Minister was gung-ho and looking forward to having to show up to work for just 45 minutes every week. The Prime Minister was going to show us just how well he could memorize his lines and put on a Broadway-worthy performance with dramatic delivery. He may even have put his hand on his heart a time or two.
We all saw how that experiment unfolded. The Prime Minister quickly saw that his glib platitudes did not give satisfying answers on the concerns of Canadians, the problems facing our economy, or his ethical lapses. It quickly became crystal clear to everyone that the Prime Minister failed to perform and bombed terribly.
Remember the Wednesday when the Prime Minister was asked 18 times if he had met with the Ethics Commissioner? That was May 10.
Although I cannot and I will not refer to the presence or absence of a member, I can say that the House did not hear another Wednesday answer from the Prime Minister until June 7.
John Ivison wrote just this past Thursday about the most recent Prime Minister's question period, noting that the Prime Minister“...did not look like he was having fun Wednesday, when he was pummelled for the entire Question Period on topics ranging from the big issues of the day—Chinese takeovers, rising debt levels—to more arcane subjects like potentially illegal activity at Shared Services Canada and autism funding.”
It is obvious that Liberal bigwigs decided that their leader's performance was actually a liability to the Liberal Party. His performance in question period specifically was a liability to the Liberal Party. If anything, the Liberals' last-minute withdrawal of this proposal only highlights the fact that the government's approach to procedural reforms has been guided solely by Liberal partisan interests. They only want to do it if it is in their interest. That has been made very obvious by their rather rapid withdrawal of a Prime Minister's question period.
Of course, the Prime Minister's good friend, Gerry Butts, was on Twitter Friday claiming that there would never be standing order amendments to create a Prime Minister's question period. To further his alternative facts, the PMO principal secretary then claimed that the Standing Orders were entirely silent on question period. I guess he obviously had not read Standing Order 37, for example, with the big headline above it of “Oral Questions”.
Setting that aside, in her response to written Question No. 1022 tabled Friday afternoon, the government House leader said, “The motion will refer to the commitments made in the platform during the election in relation to...increasing accountability in question period.”
The House leader also testified on Thursday afternoon at the procedural and House affairs committee, where she again reiterated that the Prime Minister's question period would be in the motion. Just a few hours later, though, her words did not match up to her notice of motion, with the Prime Minister's question period being noticeably absent.
We can only conclude that this was a very hasty, last-minute change of heart from the Liberals, likely following last Wednesday's flop by the Prime Minister.
Now that I have spoken about what is not in this motion, let me turn to what actually is in government Motion No. 18.
On prorogation, the Liberals wanted to prevent governments from abusing this routine constitutional procedure. One way to do that is to promise not to abuse it and then follow through on that promise. That would be the good, old-fashioned approach of integrity.
Instead, the government proposes that after prorogation, the government would be obliged to table its reasons, or its excuses, when Parliament reconvenes. Basically, that means that from this time forward, governments can table the press release that it puts out when it announces prorogation. That is really all this change will do.
This amendment makes no sense. It is meaningless. The Prime Minister should be embarrassed to put it on the Standing Orders.
With respect to the Liberal pledge on omnibus bills, we see something even more ridiculous and absurd. The Liberal proposal to end omnibus abuse exempts budget bills, the very bills the Liberals used to complain about. When we look at Bill C-44, which just passed, we see that it is little wonder the Liberals are trying to have their cake and eat it too.
On the other hand, for the few bills the rule might possibly apply, really nothing will change at all. There will be a few extra votes in the House, but no more debate would be held.
The real concern is that the Prime Minister will become more aggressive with omnibus bills. Sheltering under this half-baked reform, omnibus bills will be encouraged. The Liberals can claim that they will be absolved of any fault, because they have changed the rules. This is absolute rubbish. It is not hard to imagine the Liberals taking us to a place where we will soon see things like a throne speech implementation act, with everything thrown into one bill and just a lot of votes to follow. It is actually very worrisome.
However, we should not worry; they say there will be three votes instead of one.
In short, the proposals on prorogation and omnibus bills are so cynical that they are just jokes, plain and simple.
The next item is not as cynical, and it may even have some merit. However, to be successful, it requires the Liberal cabinet to follow through on a promise. Given their record on keeping promises, I have my doubts.
Without getting into a lot of technical detail, government Motion No. 18 tweaks a number of aspects about the scrutiny process for the main estimates. For Canadians not familiar with what the estimates are, they are the proposals that lead to Parliament's authorization for government spending.
The government wanted to achieve a better alignment of the budget and the main estimates. As a matter of principle, Conservatives do not object to this idea. However, the challenge lies in implementation, especially the timing.
Essentially there are two ways to address the timing issues: budgets could be presented earlier or the estimates could be presented later. The government wants flexibility in when budgets are presented, given fluctuating events. That is fair enough, since the previous Conservative government also insisted on the same thing when similar proposals were floated by committee five years ago.
However, last fall the President of the Treasury Board published his own discussion paper on this very issue. He called for a permanent change to the Standing Orders that would reduce the three months currently available to study the main estimates down to 30 days. The Treasury Board president had been promoting this reform, effectively saying that it would give us great documents—so great, apparently, that there really would not need to be time for parliamentary oversight.
Well, hold on. While recognizing the merits of aligning budgets and estimates, the Conservative Party does not want to sacrifice the time available for scrutiny of spending proposals, because we all know how much the Liberals love to spend.
Last fall the Liberals were quite itchy to get these changes through the government operations and estimates committee, but we managed to put the brakes on these hasty, bad changes. For that, I want to recognize the good work of our Treasury Board critic, the hon. member for Brantford—Brant, and his colleagues on that committee, the hon. members for Beauport—Limoilou and Edmonton West.
We were hardly doing this just be stubborn or obstructionist. Outside observers, including none other than our parliamentary budget officer, pointed out concerns with the government's optimistic plans. In November the parliamentary budget officer published a report explaining the promise of the President of the Treasury Board. The PBO had this to say:
With respect to delaying the main estimates, the Government indicates that the core impediment in aligning the budget and estimates arises from the Government’s own sclerotic internal administrative processes, rather than parliamentary timelines.
He went on to say:
This example [of last year's supplementary estimates] shows that it is unlikely that delaying the release of the main estimates by eight weeks would provide full alignment with the budget.
His predecessor, Kevin Page, penned an op-ed in The Globe and Mail, which also poured cold water on the Liberal plan. Kevin Page said:
How does that improve financial control? ... If you start from the perspective of financial control, Parliament should see the fiscal plan...before April 1.
Therefore, this is not just us expressing concerns. There were a number of other esteemed individuals who expressed concern with the government's plan.
More recently, the PBO, in reviewing the spring supplementary estimates, offered this skeptical take, noting his analysis:
...demonstrates the [Treasury Board] Secretariat is further away from its goal in 2017-18, rather than closer to it. This raises a significant question of whether the Government's proposal to delay the main estimates would result in meaningful alignment with the budget.
Basically, the Liberal government was saying to trust them on improving the estimates and wanted Parliament to agree to this change up front, while the evidence of the government's ability to do its part was completely unconvincing.
By standing firm through tough negotiations over the winter and spring, Conservatives reined in these Liberal efforts to slash accountability.
The amendment set out in government Motion No. 18 is now a two-year experiment, providing two months of committee study, twice the amount that the Treasury Board president had originally proposed. By insisting on a sunset clause for this change, Conservatives have ensured we can take an evidence-based decision after the 2019 election on whether the information made available to parliamentarians truly does improve leading to a reasonable trade-off with losing a month of scrutiny.
The ball is now in the Minister of Finance and Treasury Board president's court. Given the government's record, I am not holding my breath.
Finally, there is the amendment that will prevent ministers from sitting on committees. However, it will allow parliamentary secretaries to be ex officio members of committees, with all privileges except the ability to vote or to constitute quorum. They may participate at in camera meetings, question witnesses, and travel. Parliamentary secretaries will maintain practically every tool, except an actual vote, to shape and steer committee work.
Liberal parliamentary secretaries have continued to attend committees, and in some cases strive to shape the committee's work and decisions. This proposal would only further entrench their ability to do this, while claiming to honour platform commitments. How very clever.
If the Prime Minister has concluded that parliamentary secretaries are important to committee work, the Liberals should just admit that and assign them Liberal seats at committees.
The Liberal caucus has dozens of backbenchers with multiple committee assignments. This arrangement may work in the current majority context, but in a minority situation it could become quite an unsustainable burden on any government backbench when 70 or so office-holders would go without any committee assignments and 50 to 80 MPs would have to cover 24 standing committees, plus two joint committees and any special committees. I do not know if the government has thought this through, especially if it does find itself in a minority situation at some point.
A similar arrangement whereby parliamentary secretaries could not sit on committees that were related to their department was implemented in 1986, but it was later scrapped in 1991. We should not be surprised to see another U-turn in the years ahead on this particular change.
As I said in my opening remarks, this has been a long road that we have travelled down. At the beginning, I was not sure whether the Liberal House leader's approach to this whole issue was aggressively ambitious or just very naive, but over the subsequent months, the answer has become increasingly clear.
Shortly after the parliamentary battle launched in March, Andrew Coyne wrote a piece entitled, “Renewed attempt to rewrite House rules confirms Liberals are not to be trusted”.
The article stated:
The [first] 18 months of the...government have been an education in cynicism. Every time you think you have plumbed the depths, every time you believe you have pierced the many veils of their duplicity, you are delighted to discover still another con wrapped inside the last—usually delivered by some smiling minister tweeting variations on “Better is Always Possible” and “Diversity is Our Strength.”
Later the article says:
The latest chance to refresh our acquaintance with how deeply cynical the [Prime Minister's] people are—not have become: are—is the clutch of grubby expedients the government is now trying to stuff down the opposition’s throats, in the name, prettily, of “parliamentary reform.” Scholars of the [Prime Minister's] style will recognize the expression “reform,” like “merit-based appointments” and “evidence-based policy,” as a tell that some kind of humbug is afoot, and this is no exception....
We had an early foretaste of this with the infamous Motion Six... That alone ought to have signalled how sincere [the Prime Minister]’s frequent protests of his devotion to democratic accountability are: as calculated, as fake—and as useful!—as his feminism.
Well now the Liberals are back, with a new, more attack-proof House Leader...
That brings me to the current government House leader.
I truly believe the hon. member for Waterloo is very well-intentioned, but she has been set by the Prime Minister for failure, as a rookie parliamentarian, in taking on the important role as House leader and all that it entails, while at the same time picking this fight.
Veteran parliamentary observer Chantal Hébert recently penned her observations on a pattern of, as she said, “Rookie ministers turned into cannon fodder”. I will read from her recent column. It is extremely relevant and a very clear example. She has articulated very clearly what we are seeing the Prime Minister do with his rookie MPs, specifically women MPs, sadly. The article stated:
[The hon. member for Waterloo] is the first woman to occupy this strategic government position [House leader]. She also brings to the role less hands-on experience in the Commons than any of her predecessors.
To be able to read the mood of the House is an essential skill for one in [her] position. It is also a skill usually acquired over time.
As parliamentary neophyte, [she] would have had her hands full just keeping the government’s legislative agenda on track. Yet, shortly after her appointment she was tasked with implementing a controversial set of parliamentary reforms. Included in the government’s unilateral wish list were measures that would have curtailed some of the few procedural tools at the disposal of an opposition minority.
[The government House leader] might as well have set out for a stroll across a minefield. She pressed on with the plan until a predictable procedural war threatened to bring the House to a grinding halt. At that point she beat back in retreat — at cost to her credibility.
Even veteran Liberal Warren Kinsella reached this conclusion when he tweeted last week, saying that if she was forced to do yet another climb-down, her position would become untenable.
The passage from Chantal Hébert's column was about a broader point: the fact that our self-proclaimed feminist Prime Minister has put a number of earnest, well-intentioned, but inexperienced young female ministers into senior roles where they become political roadkill. As a female politician myself, it angers me when I see what the Prime Minister has done with his cabinet and those with immense professional potential. These are young people with huge potential in the Liberal caucus, and they are being put in these positions just to benefit his cynical feminist brand.
Basically, we are seeing some Liberal MPs being prematurely promoted into roles and responsibilities ahead of having the necessary experience to assume such weighty offices and then being asked to do the impossible for the Prime Minister. Some would call this the “glass cliff”.
I recognize that some of this could be inevitable when a party goes from being a third party straight into government. However, we have seen a pattern with the Prime Minister, which has been made much worse by a prime minister who is far more concerned with snappy sound bites and click-bait pictures than actually doing his own members right and putting them in positions where they have experience and are not doomed to fail. He simply does not have his eye on competent management and professional development within his own government.
As Ms. Hébert suggested, these young rookie ministers could well have become formidable forces in Canadian politics. I wish them well in their future, I honestly do. They would have been formidable forces in Canadian politics if they had a chance to mature in their career paths, but instead they have seen their potential sacrificed for the sake of some re-tweets and trending hashtags.
Speaking personally, I know the value of taking one step at a time on a career path. When I was first elected, I did a stint on the backbench and then I got to chair a committee. After that, I worked for a while as a parliamentary secretary and then was promoted into the ministry. Today, I find myself the opposition House leader, a role I am very privileged to hold.
Even though I am learning new things every day, it is not basic principles I am learning. I have had the benefit of adding my lessons to a base of experience and knowledge that I have acquired over almost nine years. Regrettably, for the hon. member for Waterloo, I do not think she has enjoyed the same benefit of incremental growth and development. However, the fault for that lies not at her feet but with the Prime Minister.
What is the lesson to take out of this whole episode from the March discussion paper through to today's government motion?
In a column entitled, “Liberals forced to swallow humble pie — again — on parliamentary rule changes”, John Ivison stated, “the Liberals have learned the hard way that the rules governing this most precious of institutions can only be amended by consensus, not by parliamentary cosh.”
We have long said that the rules of the House belong to all members from all corners of the House. Changes should enjoy consensus support before being implemented. The Liberals have learned this the hard way. Ideas for discussion and debate are to be welcomed. A prescriptive list of proposals strapped to a rocket for rapid implementation rightly rouses suspicions.
However, the government continually demonstrates its contempt for this institution and its history. Most recently, in his proposed nominee for Clerk of the House of Commons, we once again saw the Prime Minister dismiss the consultation process and bypass the established non-partisan professional development practice for career advancement with our procedural experts. There are some very serious and valid concerns with respect to how the nomination of the Clerk has come about.
Prime ministers, even those with majority governments, should not pick a fight with the House of Commons in a bald-faced power grab to neuter what tools this House has. After all, the core constitutional role of the House of Commons is not to pass bills but to hold the government to account.
Barely a year in office, the Liberals found this reality to be a pesky inconvenience. They tried to eliminate this, to remove the distraction from a government built on platitudes and selfies. The government has created a distraction, falsely called our calls for consensus to be a demand for a veto. It was not a demand for a veto; it was our right. There is a significant gulf between a demand for a veto and a consensus.
Negotiations and horse-trading inevitably lead to a result where one has to give up something to gain something. However, that is not how the government chose to approach the Standing Orders. It should not have ended up this way. It chose to provoke a procedural war in an effort to get its own way. As in every case throughout the centuries when power-hungry kings and governments sought to curb Parliament's powers, the House of Commons fought back. Just as in the past, the elected House won. We are grateful for that, and will keep fighting the government and doing our job.